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Open Letters Monthly: "An absolutely terrific series."

Date: Aug 4 2014

Our book today is By My Hand, the new Commissario Ricciardi mystery by Maurizio DeGiovanni – a richly textured and enormously enjoyable series starring a morose young police detective in 1930s Naples who, since his childhood, has had a gift – or, from his own viewpoint, suffered under a curse – that helps him in his job solving murders but tortures him in the process:

I see the dead. On every street corner, at every window, I see the dead. I see them as they were when they died their violent deaths, their bodies ravaged, blood pouring, bones jutting out from their torn flesh. I see suicides, murder victims, those who were run over by carriages, those who drowned in the sea. I see them, and I hear them obsessively repeating the last obtuse thought of their broken lives. I see them, until they dissolve into thin air, to find a peace that may or may not exist. I don’t know where. And I feel their immense pain at abandoning love, for all time.

By the time this latest novel, the fifth in the series, opens, Ricciardi’s police team know his routines well: at any murder scene, his men form a cordon and let their boss enter first alone. They don’t know the reason for this (Ricciardi keeps his baleful secret to himself), but they know the results, the uncanny intuitive leaps their leader seems able to make after leaving any crime scene.

The scene in this book is typically brutal: a man and woman savagely hacked to death in bed in a seaside apartment building, the dead woman forlornly repeating Hat and gloves? and the man saying I don’t owe a thing, not a thing. Ricciardi is faced in these pages not only with the task of untangling these necessarily cryptic final utterances (as usual, the author does a clever and in this case touchingly ironic job of bringing the crime’s resolution back to the words Ricciardi initially hears from the dead) but also with his complex feelings for his neighbor Enrica, a wonderfully-drawn character who worriedly attended the detective’s bedside after the near-fatal car wreck that ended the last book but who has, since then, withdrawn from even the very tenuous connection she had with him – loading just a little more heartache onto our somber hero. She’s even closed the window through which Ricciardi used to watch her go about life in her own apartment, observing her as though she were yet another ghost in his life:

He missed finding in the serenity of her movements – as she made dinner for her parents and siblings, or read or cleared the table, listened to music or tutored children at home – a haven from the blood and sorrow that assailed him at every street corner, a respite from the pain that serenaded him, and him alone, with its horrible song.

As I’ve enthused on a couple of occasions now (here and here), this is an absolutely terrific series, the jewel of Europa Editions’ superb line of original paperbacks. And new readers can easily jump in at any point – and so they should!

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